The bronze eagle took flight in 1976, stolen by a prankster who liberated the bird from its granite resting place near the feet of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and disappeared with the ultimate souvenir from the nation's bicentennial celebration.
All that remained was a U.S. Park Police report listing an "act of vandalism," a blurry 1905 portrait of the sculpture and a ghostly outline on the granite, barely hinting at the bird's size and shape.
Yesterday, a new eagle landed on Sherman's monument, re-created by an artist who studied the clues left behind, the previous sculptor's technique, the science of ornithology and the spirit of the monument.
"I like the energy, the sweep of the wings," Washington sculptor Gordon Kray said as he ran his hands along the S-shaped curve of one bronze wing.
Kray's eagle is rich with detail. The feathers look a bit ruffled and uneven, as though the 5-foot-long, 130-pound bird is returning, buffeted from a tumultuous flight.
Kray hovered around the sculpture in the hot sun while U.S. Park Service employees helped secure it to the granite pedestal at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, near the White House.
They used stainless steel bolts and masonry epoxy. Afterward, Kray grabbed the sculpture with both hands and pulled. "This one isn't going anywhere," he said.
He has reason to worry. Not only was this eagle's predecessor stolen, but Kray's work has also a history of disappearing. In 1991, his bronze bust of Pope John Paul II was stolen from St. Matthew's Cathedral near Dupont Circle NW. A pacifist group told The Washington Post that it had kidnapped the bust and would keep it until the pope declared that it was wrong for Catholics to serve in the Army.
The demand was never met, and a replica of the bust was created.
Kray carries laminated photos of his work in his wallet, a way to keep them close to his heart after he has released them. He has snapshots of the Khalil Gibran memorial along Embassy Row, of the pope, the Virgin Mary and former chief justice John Marshall, among others. The eagle's photo will join the collection.
He worked on the bird for nearly a decade. Only two of those years were spent doing the part he loved: sweating in his studio, sculpting each feather out of clay or wax, casting the curves of the wings again and again until he got their swoop just right. He studied other birds the previous sculptor had done and pored over the ghosting left on the granite pedestal to guess the bird's size and shape.
Most of his time was spent waiting nervously for various boards to decide the fate of his work -- whether he had adhered to historical and aesthetic standards and was within a $17,000 budget.
Then there were the security delays.
"Every time [the president] left the White House, we all had to leave the monument and go wait on the side of the road for a while," Kray said. "The same thing happened when he returned. It took so long."
Despite the holdups, the project provided a historical opportunity for Kray that he treasures.
There are no plans to add memorials to President's Park, so Kray will be the sole living artist displaying his work among a gallery of long-dead sculptors, National Park Service spokesman Bill Line said.
The first eagle was part of the Sherman monument and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Danish sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith created the equestrian statue of the general, mounted not far from the spot where Sherman paraded his army upon his return to Washington.
Yesterday, Kray touched each of the eagle's details again -- the talons grasping an arrow, the acorns and berries on the wreath of oak and laurel -- trying to figure out which parts might become shiny and bright after being touched by tourists' hands in the years to come.